August 21, 2012
College can be one of the most exciting times in a young person’s life—and the most stressful.
“Stress is an issue for our students, as it is on most campuses,” says Charlie Morse, assistant dean for student development and director of counseling at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), an urban college of more than 5,000 in Massachusetts. “We have a fast, hyper-focused pace here. Our students are incredibly bright and successful and achievement oriented. But they may struggle in terms of their own self-definition and adjusting to the environment.”
For many students, it’s the first time away from home. Academic demands can be intense, and students often juggle coursework with jobs and campus activities. They may cope with problems ranging from living with roommates to homesickness to alcohol abuse and, as a result, suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues.
Without intervention, some will attempt suicide.
The Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) at EDC estimates 1,100 college students die each year by suicide. To help colleges and universities promote mental health and intervene on behalf of distressed students before tragedy happens, EDC and The Jed Foundation have developed the Guide to Campus Mental Health Action Planning (CampusMHAP).
The CampusMHAP approach helps campus administrators identify problems and needs related to student mental health and develop a plan to address those needs. The guide suggests that suicide prevention coordinators involve not only campus counselors, administrators, and faculty but the greater campus community, including students, in efforts to promote the mental health of all students and prevent suicide.
Students helping prevent suicides on campus
Morse and WPI, which was the recipient of a three-year suicide prevention grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, have worked with the guidance provided by CampusMHAP for five years.
“Early on we identified a gap in terms of student outreach and peers working with peers on campus,” says Morse. To fill that gap, WPI staff created the Student Support Network (SSN) program to train student leaders to recognize signs of depression and suicidal thought, to know how to talk to peers who are in distress, and to recognize when to alert campus officials so they may intervene.
Faculty, staff, and students nominated student leaders to take part in the initial Student Support Network training. Interest in the program far exceeded Morse’s expectations. “I prayed we’d find 15 students to do the first training,” he says. “We had double that number.”
Since then, WPI has trained more than 400 students as part of SSN. While students do not replace professional mental health counselors, they do provide eyes and ears into risky situations campus officials might not know about.
“We’ve hit a nerve here,” Morse says. “These students want to help their friends. Now our biggest challenge is accommodating all the students who want to participate in SSN training.”
A public health approach to campus suicide prevention
Fostering supportive student networks is just one component of CampusMHAP, which encourages all key parties on campus and their departments to get involved.
“Mental health issues can be overwhelming,” says EDC’s Laurie Davidson, co-author of the guide. “If a suicide happens on campus, administrators are eager to ‘fix the problem.’ We’re showing them how to think through and plan their efforts strategically, to understand the problems on their campuses, and to plan programs that make the most sense to achieve their goals.”
Through a series of four webinars and a guidebook, all developed by EDC and The Jed Foundation, CampusMHAP shows campus administrators and staff how to develop a strategic campus mental health action plan.
Suicide prevention strategies include promoting social networks, helping students develop life skills, increasing student help-seeking, identifying and intervening with at-risk students, and developing protocols if a crisis or traumatic event occurs. The original webinars attracted about 250 participants from colleges and universities across the United States.
Davidson says CampusMHAP supports college counseling center directors such as Charlie Morse at WPI. “Counseling centers are often overburdened,” she says. “Suicide prevention goes beyond a counselor talking to a patient in their office. We can shift some of that burden to other folks on campus who have a stake in this issue. The campus community’s role is vitally important.”
Morse looks forward to kicking off the fall term at WPI, knowing each year brings new students and new challenges.
“The conversation about mental health on campus has changed over the years,” he says. “We used to not be able to say the word suicide. That has changed. We can talk about mental health issues openly on campus. We’ve developed a strategy, step by step. But you have to have good policies, good infrastructure, and community support. That is all addressed in CampusMHAP.”